Are You Infected with the Responsibility Virus?

Responsibility by nosha.jpg

Whenever I'm invited to work with leaders in organizations of all types and sizes, eventually the subject matter of accountability creeps up. Leaders often lament how difficult it is to get people to be accountable and to follow through on commitments. In addition, many leaders complain about not being able to delegate because they don't feel comfortable trusting certain staff members to deliver on promises.

This is a sad commentary on the status of trust in today's workplace.

What I often say in response to these leadership concerns frequently catches these leaders off-guard: 

"Could it be," I ask them, "that you caused this situation to begin with?" 

"Might YOU, dear leaders, be to blame for this lack of accountability?"

As you can imagine, leaders don't like to hear that. And most of them certainly don't believe they are the cause of this accountability deficit they perceive in their organizations and teams.

So I teach them about the concept of The Responsibility Virus. And they often change their minds. See if you are like them and let me know in the comments below what you think. 

Responsibility Virus Vicious Cycle.jpg

What's the Responsibility Virus?

According to Roger Martin, Rotman School of Management Professor and former 15 year Dean, in his book The Responsibility Virus: How Control Freaks, Shrinking Violets-and The Rest Of Us-can Harness The Power Of True Partnership, the fear of failure creates “heroic leaders” and “passive followers” and infects organizations with “the Responsibility Virus”.

Let's take a closer look at what these characters are like: 

Heroic leaders tend to be over-responsible – they take on more responsibility than they can handle.

They are convinced that their passive followers can’t handle responsibility so they take on the extra load.

As their burden grows, heroic leaders begin to feel resentful. Ultimately, over-responsibility leads to failure. 

Passive followers, on the other hand, don’t take enough responsibility.

They sense that their leaders don’t think they can handle it, and when the leader takes away more responsibility the passive followers withdraw even further.

Here's the thing: One cannot exist without the other. Heroic leaders and passive followers tend to exist in direct proportion to each other in a symbiotic relationship.

It’s like a vicious cycle.

The leader takes on more work than is reasonable or possible, and gives off an attitude that tells others to ‘step aside’.

The more the leader removes responsibility from the follower, the more under-responsible the follower will feel and act.  

What's the big deal, you might be thinking? After all, aren't the heroic leaders the kind of over-achievers we should all strive to emulate? That's a costly thinking error. Here's why.

Costs of the Responsibility Virus

There are some pretty significant costs associated with the responsibility virus. Here are the main ones, according to Martin:

The responsibility virus undermines capacity for productive collaboration.

You teach followers (by example) that you want work done your way, and only your way. You show them (by your actions) that you're perfectly willing to do tasks yourself to get them completed up to your exacting standards. But no one can be a clone of you - they have their own ideas, their own, slightly different, ways to approach work, and methods for solving problems. You send a message that working collaboratively is useless, because nothing different than YOUR way is acceptable. 

The responsibility virus develops mistrust and misunderstanding

. Unfortunately, your staff and colleagues cannot read your mind to fully understand your intentions when you remove responsibility from them because you prefer to do it yourself, or because you think you're helping them out when the going gets tough. They may make other assumptions about your intentions, such as that you don't trust them, or that you don't appreciate their skillfulness, or that you find them incompetent. They might view you as conceited, or overbearing, or power-hungry. Or all of the above.

The responsibility virus atrophies decision-making skills.

Decision-making is a learned skill. Everyone can improve their decision-making approach and quality by practicing deliberately with a source of expert feedback. However, when you keep removing responsibility every time a follower struggles with a decision or makes a mistake, you denying that follower the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and to practice some more. If your approach is to step in and do the work FOR them,  then you aren't providing them the necessary opportunities to learn from experience or to receive constructive coaching and feedback from you that will further build their competence.

How to Break the Vicious Cycle of the Responsibility Virus

What you want to do is break this vicious cycle by encouraging accountability and responsibility. Cultivate your followers' capabilities and capacity to own increasingly greater portions of a project or process rather than just doling out tasks without their context or the holistic 'big picture' view of their rationale and/or results. And provide employees plenty of room for practice, trial and error, feedback, and opportunities to re-attempt to perform the skill. 

In my next post, I'll introduce a useful tool called The Responsibility Ladder that can help you assess where your employees are currently in their decision-making capabilities, and I will show you how to help them progress toward greater and greater decision-making capacity. 

Share your thoughts!

In the meantime, I'd love it if you jump down to the comments below and share your experience with the Responsibility Virus: Have you seen this virus in your workplace? In yourself? What do you think is the biggest drawback it presents and/or the benefit of 'curing' the Responsibility Virus?

Photo by Flickr user Nosha